*Originally posted August 2018. Updated July 2022
I’ll admit that the first time I ate lunch in my car was an act of desperation. It was a hectic day at the office and suddenly the thought of eating in the cafeteria, going to my favourite coffee shop, or even taking a walk felt incredibly overwhelming.
I’ve since learned that I am a highly sensitive person (HSP). Someone who has a sensory-processing sensitivity, or a nervous system that is more easily kicked into overdrive. In other words, it was discovering and accepting that I was absolutely not “crazy” for feeling like the fluorescent lights in my office were unbearable, for feeling stressed out when the TV was too loud, or for feeling like the dry air was making it impossible for me to concentrate.
According to Dr. Elaine Aron (who coined the term), having a highly sensitive nervous system is a trait found in about 20 percent of the population. As she sums up, this ultimately means it is “too many to be a disorder, but not enough to be well understood by the majority of those around you”.
Why was this so helpful for me? Because I finally understood why even an average work day in my relatively-cushy office job can push me over the edge. For any Simpsons fans out there, another way to put it would be that every day sounds that seem like background noise to others make me feel like this wolf, reacting to the “word of the day”. Sometimes I find it embarrassing, but I mostly try to no longer judge myself for it.
If you’re an HSP (or an introvert, or simply anxious, for that matter) you’ll understand that there are times when you just hit your limit. Unfortunately, I hit this limit much more easily than most. I used to try and push through. I would compare myself to everyone else. Be upset with myself for being “weak”, felt like I was over-exaggerating, and even angry for not being able to keep up. I am still guilty of doing this, but the long-term costs of pushing nearly always outweigh the short-term benefits.
This is especially true when I push myself for someone else, instead of for my own reasons (I stay for just one more drink because I feel silly saying I need to leave because the music is too loud at a party, maybe I agree to have lunch on a patio, even though I know it’s too hot, and I’m likely to have a migraine after, or maybe I watch a TV show with my spouse that’s a little too violent for me, and am almost guaranteed to have nightmares afterwards).
I’m telling you – it’s not worth it. These examples may seem petty, or trivial, but they eventually pile up and take their toll. I will start to feel heavy and sluggish, my mood is negative, and I will usually have other physical symptoms like a headache and a stomach ache.
I’m learning to take moments to re-charge, in ways that work for me, and also learning that my “battery”, so to speak, charges a little more slowly and drains much, much more quickly than I would expect. It’s therefore important to build in breathers and moments of rest anywhere you can.
An evening alone unwinding with some Netflix or a good book might seem like it should be enough to keep me energized for the week, but I notice that it is not. So I am trying to prioritize larger chunks of relaxing into my weeks. Of course – this is easier said than done. Sometimes one’s schedule is simply too demanding, and scheduling hours of down time each week isn’t a luxury you can afford.
But I’ve started to experiment with micro pauses, which help me find peaceful moments within even the busiest days. It might be as simple as turning away from my desk and closing my eyes while I take my sip of water, or coffee (instead of mindlessly chugging it while I scroll through yet another email). Or maybe I get up and touch my toes, or roll my shoulders a few times, instead of trying to do it while I’m on the phone, not really focusing. Maybe it’s just me, but I find multi-tasking as an HSP particularly challenging. I am much, much calmer taking it one task at a time, no matter how small, as I need extra time to process. I’m not the type of person who can have the news on in the background, while I put on my makeup, and simultaneously try and eyeball a few text messages (anyone else?).These examples may seem silly, but it’s a constant battle to keep myself soothed and calm.
But – back to the car. For the most part, when I am overwhelmed, I know that the best thing for me to do is get some time alone. It did feel a little strange at first. Like I should be spending my lunch break doing something. Or like there was something vaguely sad about it (as a teenager, I sometimes hid out in deserted hallways to eat, afraid to be seen alone at a table). But you know what? It didn’t take me long to realize this was something I *enjoyed* doing. And not that it should matter, but I also looked around and realized that there were several other people doing the exact same thing. Sitting (alone) and doing nothing but eating their lunch in the car. No friends. No book. Just pausing. And it wasn’t just in parks, or places with beautiful scenery either. As I took a liking to car dining, and tried different locations, I was pleasantly surprised to see that strangers were even doing this in mall parking lots (who knew?).
Sitting in my car allows me to unwind more completely – no one is going to interrupt me for conversation (like they would in the cafeteria), I have total control over the temperature (which I wouldn’t, outside), and I can customize pretty much everything. I admittedly still feel a bit uncomfortable, doing it. And if someone ever “caught” me, or asked me why I just got into my car with my lunch bag, I’d possibly say a white lie. But it’s time for that to stop.
So whether you also eat lunch in your car, whether you’re going to start, or whether you have some other trick for giving yourself a break, the takeaway is this: there is nothing wrong with you, you’re not as weird as you think you are, and you’re allowed to do what it takes for you to remain functional. I promise 😉 If you’re interested in learning more about being highly sensitive, you can check out Dr. Aron’s book, or, for more bite-sized and digestible videos, I find Simple Happy Zen’s YouTube channel highly relatable.